Digitising logistics for the Ultimate Driving Machine

In this first of two articles, Simon Duval Smith looks at the connected logistics initiatives and talks to the executives and engineers who are driving the digital revolution at BMW. In part two we will look in depth at the software behind the initiatives, the use of virtual reality, and highlight some specific applications of digitalisation

The BMW Group is constantly seeking out innovations from the fields of digitalisation and Industry 4.0 to streamline its production logistics. The OEM’s focus is on applications such as logistics robots, autonomous transport systems at plants and digitalisation projects for an end-to-end supply chain. Breakthroughs include the ability of staff to control logistics processes from mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets and use virtual reality applications to plan future logistics. The innovations are being piloted at various plants in Europe and the US and are destined to be implemented worldwide in logistics at BMW Group plants. We visited BMW Plant Regensburg to see demonstrations of the new technologies.

Regensburg - the perfect proving ground

Regensburg is a fitting lead plant for the introduction of advanced automation in manufacturing and logistics; it was the first BMW plant to use computers, the Internet and email; this was confined to in-plant communications at first.

Marcus Wollens, Vice President Logistics & Controlling, Plant Regensburg started off the presentations on the plant with some figures and history. “BMW Plant Regensburg is 32 years old and has an output of 338,000 vehicles per year, equating to between 1100 and 1300 vehicles per day assembled by 3,000 employees,” he says.

Wollens spoke of the complex inbound chain coming into the plant. “We have 950 suppliers who deliver to Regensburg with 550 trucks coming in with parts every day. Managing the size and complexity of inbound materials required a lot of manpower and so five years ago we started using some small parts automated handling systems.” Wollens poses the question: ‘Why is innovation so important in in-plant logistics?’ Answering this, Wollens talks of the downscaling and expansion of in-plant transport: “In the past, large loads were moved around by large trucks, now we send smaller loads around the plant by automated and autonomous transport.”

Wollens pointed out how some of the best solutions to in-plant logistics challenges came from employees, particularly in ‘training’ the automated vehicles to replace drivers. “Shop floor personnel have helped create interfaces between drivers and autonomous vehicles; the operators often have the best view and insight to find the best way of programming and routing the automated vehicles.”

The right vehicle to the right customer first time every time

Jürgen Maidl, Production, Senior Vice-President Production Network, Supply Chain Management rounded off the opening presentation, saying: “It must be stressed that the adoption of more automation, autonomous vehicles within the plant and connected distribution generally is all aimed at getting the right finished vehicle to the customer on time every time.”

As with most OEMs, BMW would prefer to build every customer vehicle to order; building vehicles for stock tends to rely on many variables. This can be made up of the marketing department’s expertise in choosing the specification of demonstrator vehicles according to its research and dealers using their experience of their customer base’s tastes. With the number of options available constantly increasing as vehicles become more sophisticated, these strategies can often lead to overstocking of vehicles and the subsequent discounting of ‘unfashionably’ equipped stock. Maidl talked of the importance of order-to-delivery and said that while vehicles built to order worked quite well in Europe, vehicles destined for the US were much more often built to stock for dealers to be able to display large and varied specification stock for the the US customers’ preference of choosing a vehicle on the showroom floor. This is at variance with the model in Europe where customers are far more likely to specify their new vehicle online, or at the very least choose the specification at a dealer and wait for delivery. Maidl also stressed the importance of the BMW Group’s work with educational and research institutions such as the Fraunhofer Institute, saying: “Working closely with organisations like Fraunhofer gives us access to the latest developments in new areas such as artificial intelligence, advanced automation and man-machine interface. They are a valuable partner.”

Summing up the overall aims of the initiative, Maidl says: “Logistics is the heart of our production system. Our broad spectrum of ground-breaking projects helps us run increasingly complex logistics processes efficiently and transparently,” adding, “We are taking advantage of the wide range of available technological innovations and working closely with universities and start-ups. We are already working with tomorrow’s Industry 4.0 technologies today.”

Scale and start-ups

Around 1,800 suppliers at more than 4,000 locations deliver over 31 million parts to the 30 BMW Group production sites worldwide every day. Digitalisation and innovations help the company organise logistics more flexibly and more efficiently. At the same time, almost 10,000 vehicles coming off the production line daily are delivered to customers around the globe. Digitally connected delivery, so-called Connected Distribution, ensures that these transport routes are also more transparent. 

“We always have several pilot projects running at our locations worldwide,” explains Marco Prüglmeier, head of Innovations and Industry 4.0 for BMW Group Logistics. “We ourselves operate like a start-up within the BMW Group, with agile development methods. We leverage various forms of international cooperation to make sure we always have access to the latest findings and technologies. We learn the most from these pilot projects. We already transferred a number of projects to series production, with further implementations planned for the future.” 

Connected Supply Chain: full data transparency in the supply chain

The BMW Group supply chain relies on a global supply network and close cooperation with numerous logistics service providers. The Connected Supply Chain (CSC) programme significantly increases supply chain transparency. It updates the plants’ material controllers and logistics specialists on the goods’ location and delivery time every 15 minutes. This transparency enables them to respond immediately if delays appear likely and take appropriate steps early to avoid costly extra runs. The digital connection between suppliers, transport service providers and the BMW Group is through the so-called CSC portal, which, for the first time, in addition to sending a transport notification, now also provides material numbers with GPS data and realistic arrival times. Since mid-2018, several hundred suppliers and transport service providers in Europe and Mexico have been integrated into the system. By the end of 2019, several thousand partners will be connected to the system. CSC also lays the basis for predictive analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) in supply chain control.

Autonomous transport systems both inside and outside

Autonomous transport systems such as tugger trains or Smart Transport Robots supplied by Agilox, are increasingly used to transport goods within production halls. To allow tugger trains to now also be used for the sophisticated process of supplying assembly lines, as part of a pilot project, BMW Group Plant Dingolfing has developed an automation kit, which enables conventional tugger trains of any brand already on hand to be upgraded to autonomous tugger trains. The capabilities of these driverless tugger trains go beyond automation of earlier solutions. It is possible to create dynamic route guidance according to delivery priority and for them to avoid obstacles by themselves. Independent control and navigation of the tugger trains is via laser signals, which continuously scan the environment and create a corresponding room profile.

Another future technology is also being piloted alongside autonomous tugger trains at the Dingolfing plant. A Smart Watch supports logistics staff during the container change process and announces approaching tugger trains via a vibration alarm. The employee can also read which containers should be unloaded and send the tugger train on to its next destination by tapping the display. As the project rolls out to other BMW facilities, BMW Group Plant Dingolfing is likely to be using 20 autonomous tugger trains from next year.

The BMW Group is also pioneering the use of autonomous transport systems outdoors. As part of a pilot project, the BMW Group is using an autonomous outdoor transport robot for the first time at its Leipzig plant to bring truck trailers from where they are parked to the unloading and loading bay on their own. A mobile platform drives underneath the trailer, connects it and steers it through the plant. The so-called AutoTrailer, from supplier WFT, has a payload of up to 30 tons, navigates by laser without additional guidelines or markings through the plant’s outdoor areas. Sensors and cameras provide a 360° all-round view, which forms the basis of the safety concept. 

Next year, the AutoTrailer will go into real operation at BMW Group Plant Leipzig. The Spartanburg (USA) and Dingolfing plants are also planned as additional locations. The huge potential of this transport system is particularly evident at the BMW Group’s largest plant, in Spartanburg in the US, where about 1,200 of these trailer-shunting manoeuvres take place every day. 

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